Press Release

IACHR Calls Attention to the Continuing Challenges Facing Pre-teen and Teenage Girls in the Region

October 12, 2016

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Washington, D.C. - On the International Day of the Girl, the IACHR recalls that there are many problems in the region that make it difficult for pre-teen and teenage girls to enjoy full exercise of their rights. The magnitude and consequences of these problems continue in many cases to be ignored, not sufficiently studied, and not addressed. They are accepted as normal by society. The IACHR appeals to the countries of the region to pay greater attention to the various challenges confronting pre-teen and teenage girls. To do this, it urges the States to strengthen the gender perspective in the operation of the National Systems for Child Protection, with direct and regular consultation of pre-teen and teenage girls about their situation and proposals to improve their circumstances, empowering them and involving them in the design of public policies to guarantee their rights.

The context in which pre-teen and teenage girls in our region grow up is strongly characterized by violence and discrimination against them. An alarming number of them are victims of abuse, harassment, physical, psychological, and sexual violence, exploitation, and neglect, in many cases by persons close to them such as family members, neighbors, acquaintances, teachers, and classmates. The violence against them and the problems in exercising their rights are intimately linked to conditions of structural discrimination against women and gender stereotypes present every country of the Hemisphere.

Sexual violence is one of the most serious forms of violence because it attacks the honor of the pre-teen and teenage girls and has a serious impact on their life, emotional and physical integrity, and personal development. This form of violence has effects on reproductive health and often results in unwanted high-risk pregnancies, illegal and unsafe abortions, and increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases. The levels of sexual violence in the region are mind-boggling, and some countries have rates that are among the highest in the world, with the main victims pre-teen and teenage girls, who account for an average of 70% or 80% of all cases of sexual violence that are reported. However, the figures fail to reflect the magnitude of the problem because there is significant underreporting of cases of sexual violence against pre-teen and teenage girls, owing to the stigma associated with reporting this type of violence, unawareness, fear, or deception, because the aggressor is usually a family member or a person close to the victim in a position of superiority, or because of family pressure. There are also structural barriers to access to justice for girls because, among other things, there are no free legal services for dealing with their cases, in many cases there are limitations on who can file the complaint, and there are statutes of limitation for this type of crime. The IACHR is deeply concerned over the limited number of cases that are actually investigated, tried, and sentenced, which contributes to continued proliferation of violence against girls. In some countries legislation has not correctly regulated some crimes, such as the crime of trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation, or the protocols for investigation of these offenses. It is also essential to adapt the proceedings to as not to re-victimize the pre-teen and teenage girls who are victims of sexual violence, and to facilitate access to comprehensive support services including legal counsel and appropriate and necessary medical care. With respect to access to medical services for pre-teen and teenage girls who are victims of sexual violence, the IACHR has received alarming information about the lack of necessary protocols for legal termination of pregnancies resulting from sexual violence against girls, which results in unwelcome pregnancies with high risk to their lives, especially for young girls.

With respect to strategies for addressing violence and discrimination, it is essential to empower pre-teen and teenage girls to understand and exercise their rights. Among measures that must be adopted are access to quality age-appropriate sex education, and sexual health and birth control services for the teenage girls. A high number of them lack access to information and to services for sexual health and birth control that are timely, adequate, accessible, and sustainable so that they can prevent early or unwanted pregnancy, prevent contracting sexually transmitted diseases, and exercise the right to decide if they want to be in a partner relationship and with whom. Early initiation of sexual activity of teenage girls without adequate information on sexual health and birth control results in many cases of unwanted pregnancies, with risks to health, or in illegal and unsafe abortions. In the case of pregnancies, family and social pressure often push the teenage girls into premature marriage or union with impact on their opportunities for personal, educational, and professional development, and to make important decisions about their lives, which renders them more vulnerable. Pre-teen and teenage girls who are pregnant are still discriminated against in schools that do not allow them to attend classes when they are pregnant.

In the region, pre-teen and teenage girls from families with very limited financial resources or groups traditionally excluded and discriminated against still face problems in exercising their right to education. They only get elementary education or drop out of school because they need to do housework, care for other family members, or earn money for the family. Problems of access to and staying in school at the various levels perpetuate the situation of vulnerability in the rights of pre-teen and teenage girls and women in the region, and their dependence on others. Educational level is a powerful factor in determining access to formal employment in the future, and therefore to financial resources needed for a decent, independent life, and for the exercise of other rights.

Pre-teen and teenage girls are also victims of labor exploitation and even some modern forms of slavery. One of the worrisome phenomena in the region that is socially accepted is the domestic work of pre-teen and teenage girls. According to information received by the IACHR, there is a high number of girls engaged in child labor to contribute to the family economy, especially as maids, which makes it hard for them to exercise several rights, among them the right to education, despite the fact that many families send their girls to the cities to work as maids in the belief that they will have better access to education. This situation also exposes them to mistreatment, abuse, violence, neglect, and exploitation, which is facilitated by the vulnerability resulting from the distance and the lack of habitual contact with their family, and the limited contact with persons trusted by the girl. A high percentage of trafficking victims worked as maids at a young age.

Pre-teen or teenage girls with special needs, or from indigenous groups, Afro-descendants, migrants, and groups traditionally excluded and discriminated against face greater discrimination and obstacles for exercising their rights, such as the right to education, health, culture, and social participation. They are also usually more vulnerable to become victims of various forms of violence and of sexual and labor exploitation. The reason lies in their belonging to groups that are traditionally excluded and discriminated against, with respect to which the State has not taken adequate measures to ensure effective enjoyment and exercise of their rights in equality of conditions and opportunities.

The IACHR urges the States to implement all measures necessary to break the circle of tolerance and impunity toward violence and discrimination against pre-teen and teenage girls and to empower them, strengthening local child protection services to make early identification of the risks and violations, and to respond to them adequately.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 147/16